Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Happy Campers

I wrote this a couple of years ago. I post it below for my friend Pam. May she continue to enjoy her RV, free of bugs and water. And pray that my tent holds up, J.I.C. (just in case):






As the rain crackled on the roof of the tent, sounding like fireworks off in the distance, we questioned our sanity. Why was sleeping in a tent in the mountains, with a 300 pound bear on the prowl, considered vacation? I asked my husband.

“Do you hear any cars?” my husband retorted.
“No,” I answered.
“Any trucks?”
“No,” I conceded.
“See any streetlights?” he asked. Of course I saw none.

It wasn’t just the absence of these things that made it vacation, we concluded. It was the feeling of communing with nature, really experiencing it, that we enjoyed. We told ourselves that the people who merely drove through the Smoky Mountains missed all that we saw. Likely they didn’t see the bear family crunching on apples in the apple tree, the wild turkey or fox. For sure they never got to see Abram’s Falls or to swim in the icy pool at the base of the falls unless they got out of their cars and hiked the steep and rocky 2.5 mile trail along the creek and up into the mountains. We got to feel what a bear must as he accidentally walks through a spider web or comes upon a juicy patch of blackberries.

We told ourselves that the people sleeping nearby in RVs and trailers didn’t get the full experience of nature like we did. Even after the first drop of rain that leaked through the tent, we told ourselves that. A little water wasn’t going to spoil our commune with nature. In fact, it wasn’t until we were wading in puddles in the tent, sleeping in soaked sleeping bags, that we began to appreciate the beauty of those RVs. It was not until I realized that my sneakers, which I had set neat and dry beside my sleeping bag the night before, were drenched that I began to question my sanity anew.

“Refresh me. Why is this relaxing?” I asked my husband as the early morning sun peered into the tent.

He was silent for a moment. “Well, just thank Got there aren’t any mosquitoes,” he replied. “If there were mosquitoes or bugs, then I would know for sure that we were crazy.”

I slapped at my thigh where I was sure something just bit me. “Might as well get up and make coffee,” I said to him. “Big day ahead.”

* * *

Who could explain how the canvas tent, after serving my husband’s family well for more than 35 years, decided that night that it would no longer protect its occupants against the storm? As a child, he had camped with his two brothers, two sisters, and parents every summer in that tent. He and his siblings shared a triple-decker and double-decker set of bunk cots, while his parents had their own cots on the other side of a blanket which was draped to divide the tent into two rooms. He had fond memories of those early camping trips.

As an adult, he “inherited” the tent, along with the trailer that his father had painstakingly built from the front end of a ’48 Dodge truck salvaged from the junk yard. With only me, Tim, and the two children inside, the tent was more than spacious. It stood like an aged Victorian home – proud, if somewhat old fashioned, among the aerodynamically designed tents and RVs of the campground. In theory, the threads of the canvas roof swelled up with the rain and formed an impervious shelter. In fact, it worked that way for every single rain storm that my husband could remember. Even during the hurricane on Assateague Island, it was not the roof that let in the rain, forcing us to leave. Rather, the poles blew over and the walls fell in on us as the windows let in the storm. During the hailstorm on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior, the tent had held fast for us.

We will never know for sure why then the tent suddenly failed that rainy night -- serving not as shelter but as a colander filtering the rain through the canvas on our family. One thing we did know: just as the locals had told us it would, the weather changed after we waited long enough. So, the next day we went about the business of survival, feeling much sympathy for the early settlers of Cades Cove and other parts of the Smokies who had, no doubt, suffered far worse leaking problems of their own. Unlike the early settlers, we were able to resolve our weather issues fairly readily. At a laundromat, all the soaked sleeping bags and clothing were washed and dried. At a Walmart, we purchased a blue plastic tarp which would cover the tent and, staked down, protect us from any further storms. Indeed, we even purchased new weatherproof carpeting for the floor of the tent to cover the threadbare material through which water had leaked.

Prepared for any further weather, we went about our days as happy campers. (Silently, I told myself that it would never storm again now that we were prepared.) Michela and Trent whittled toothpicks and chop sticks from twigs they found on the ground. Tim cooked pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I built a campfire in the fire ring (cheating just a little by using lighter fluid instead of blowing endlessly on newspaper). Later, we drove to watch the elk (reintroduced only recently to the Park) nibbling on greens in the meadows. We explored the historic homes of early settlers, and were reminded of our own farmhouse in upstate NY that stood desperately in need of restoration. We visited the nearby reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and learned about the Trail of Tears. And we spent long, silent moments watching a bear family high up in an apple tree feasting on apples in preparation for the long winter ahead.

The next evening we devoured steaks marinated in balsamic vinegar and flame-broiled over the open fire with garlic, salt and pepper. We relished the local, crunchy produce in our cucumber and tomato salad and savored the local sweet corn, roasted in the husks on the fire. Food had never tasted so good. Tim and I washed down our supper with cheap, red Italian wine. We smiled through the smoky haze of the campfire as Michela and Trent roasted marshmallows on sticks which they had whittled to a perfect point. Looking at each other, we raised our Tupperware tumblers and celebrated. “Salute!” We had made it through the storm.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Daughter's Other Mother

Many people, family and friends included, don’t understand the nature of the relationship we have chosen to enter into with the woman who brought our daughter into this world. And how could they? There aren’t words to describe it. The English language doesn’t quite have a word for the relationship between a biological mother and an adoptive parent. If the language doesn’t exist, how can others understand? And yet, just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship doesn’t exist. Just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship is not real.

Nikki gave birth to Maya. She cared for herself, her body and her baby for nine months during the pregnancy. She rushed Maya to the emergency room days before Christmas when Maya was just barely one month old, only to be told that her baby had a flu. She rushed her again to the ER the day before Christmas and, after being transported in a helicopter to the nearest large hospital, was made to understand that her baby would require multiple injections of insulin daily for the rest of her life. Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was just a month old and Nikki was 19.

I know Type 1 diabetes. My son Trent was diagnosed when he was barely four years old and I was in my late thirties. I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of Type 1 diabetes; only the kind that my grandmother had: Type 2. She used to sneak sweets all the time and died of bone cancer in the end anyway. At first I assumed that Trent’s life would be like that: sneaking sweets that weren’t good for him. I didn’t understand that with Type 1 diabetes, because his pancreas produced no insulin at all to convert those candies into energy, he would have to inject insulin for the rest of his life. I didn’t understand at first that it wasn’t a mere misdemeanor to sneak sweets, but in fact could be a death sentence if the sugar in his blood remained above a certain level and damaged his organs. I was an “educated” lawyer and had never heard of Type 1 diabetes before Trent’s diagnosis. I was too numbed by the vast quantities of information I had to absorb to have any feelings at first. When I finally thawed out, I couldn’t believe that my beautiful, happy, innocent first-born would have to be injected by syringes with stinging insulin each and every day to stay alive.

I can’t imagine what Nikki must have thought or felt when her newborn baby girl was diagnosed with Type 1. We, in middle class society, have a tendency to think poorer people don’t have strong minds or capacity to feel subtle emotions, as though they are less than fully human. Like hapless, long-eared puppies. If I had not known Nikki so well, I might have thought she didn’t understand what was happening or that she didn’t feel the appropriate fear and sadness. But I know Nikki. She is very smart. And she loves her daughter keenly. She surely understood the severity of the diagnosis. And, from what I read in the disclosure files provided to me before the adoption (the social workers’ judgments aside), Nikki took on her new role as pancreas with aplomb. She pricked her infant daughter’s pudgy toes to draw blood sometimes more than six times a day to obtain a glucose reading. And she stuck the baby several times a day with a syringe to inject insulin and adjust the glucose levels. Moreover, she stuck the baby two more times each day with a whopping needle full of Luvenox to break down the blood clot that had swelled around where they inserted an IV into the baby’s leg in the helicopter. I have no doubt that, had diabetes not struck, Nikki would have been a loving and competent mother to her daughter, given a little support.

The visiting nurse assigned to Maya’s case did not understand how difficult diabetes is to manage. She mistook Nikki’s insecurity for bad attitude. And, as she hopped into her car driving from one home visit to another, she did not appreciate how much effort and precious money it took a 19 year old girl to bundle a baby and take several buses across town to get to doctor’s appointments. The only thing she understood was that, without proper care, Maya could die. She certainly didn’t want any baby dying on her watch. So she blamed Nikki for every mistake and for every high blood sugar number. Nikki never had a chance. She was reported to CPS for medical neglect and her daughter was taken from her.

I only had the verbal reports from the social workers at first: that Maya was near death and in a dangerous diabetic condition when they took her; that the mother did not understand how to care for her and was not competent. I would only really know the truth when I got to know Nikki and when, just prior to adoption, I read the files. When Maya was taken from her mother, her blood sugar was 232. Normal blood sugars are between 70 and 120, but a person with Type 1 diabetes sees 232 on the glucometer often. No matter how hard a person may try, he is never as good as a working pancreas. The social workers didn’t know that. I know that. My son has had Type 1 diabetes for more than 8 years. If they took him away from me every time his blood sugar was over 232, I would have lost him hundreds of times in the last 8 years.

Still, I can’t just give Maya back. I love her. So what do I do?

To start, I don’t deny that Nikki will always be Maya’s mother. She carried her in her womb. She gave birth to her. Most importantly, she loves her. Isn’t that the essence of what motherhood is? She is not merely a “birth” mother as the adoption industry would have you believe. She didn’t just give birth and then toss away all interest and concern like an old winter coat. She’s not just a “biological” mother, passing on pertinent biological traits and nothing more. Maya inherits not just her beauty from her mother. She has also inherited that hearty laugh and coy smile from Nikki. She has inherited her mother’s intelligence and her love of music, giving her the ability to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and her ABCs from start to finish in perfect pitch. Nor is Nikki merely Maya’s “first mother” as politically correct liberals would have it. She was not only Maya’s first mother; she remains her mother.

This is not to denigrate my role and relationship with Maya. I, too, am Maya’s mother. I am the Mommy she runs to when I walk in the front door. I am the Mommy she emulates when she types on the V-tech computer Nikki bought her for her second birthday. I am the Mommy she refers to when she says “Mommy hold Maya” as she cuddles alongside me in bed. And I am the Mommy she cries for when she is hurt. I am not just an “adoptive” mother like some wet nurse in an old fable. I can’t just give Maya back like an attitude I’ve chosen to try on for a while, as experimental teens are want to do. I am her mother. Maya recognizes that. And Nikki recognizes that. I have no need to prove it to anyone else.

The truth is this: Maya has two mothers. It would be easier if she didn’t. Certainly it would have been easier for Nikki not to ever have me enter her life. Still, I think she recognizes that I am better equipped at this time in our lives to parent Maya. Certainly it would be easier for me not to have to deal with Nikki. That is the most typical scenario for mothers (setting aside lesbian couples raising children and step-mothers). Certainly it would be easier for Maya not to have such a complex family life. But I hope it will make her more complete, more rich, more full. To Maya, I am her Mommy. Nikki is her Mama Nikki, her other mom. We as parents can love more than one child. I believe that Maya can also love two mothers.

So what is the difference between Nikki and me? What has Nikki lost? What do I gain? I am Maya’s parent. I get the privilege of parenting her on a daily basis. I get the privilege of watching her master her world daily. I get to watch her wander the living room singing in her high pitched voice. I get to see her try on her Mommy’s high heels and fall over laughing. I get to see her pick up the cell phone, flip it open and say “Hello? Can you hear me?” I get to hear her insist, “Maya do it!” as she takes away the glucometer and tries to place in it the tiny rectangular strip. I get the privilege of watching her in wonder as she remains perfectly still while I prick her finger with the lancet, squeeze it, and drip blood onto the testing strip.

It is only my relationship with Nikki that has no words to describe it. I have come to calling her and her family my “baby in-laws.” My relationship with Nikki was born of a legal event: my adoption of her daughter. Our families are forever tied to each other through Maya. I am committed to making our relationship work for the sake of our family in the same way that I am committed to making the relationship with my husband’s family work. Others may not understand it. It is hard to describe to someone not in a similar position. I have come to accept that outsiders cannot understand. And they have no incentive to understand. Nikki and I have come to terms with our relationship. Of course, we have an incentive to make things work. We are Maya’s mothers.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting My E-Life in Order

Well. . . .

I have had e-mail accounts for a long time.  Outlook.  Hotmail.  Yahoo.  One at my husband's company (codeHorse.com) and my own ragolaw.com e-mail address as well.  (Not to mention a Google account that I never use.)  And I have been an avid purchaser on e-bay forever.  I have joined lists online and some of my best friends were made online.   So I am no online newbie.  I even joined Flickr recently to showcase some of my photos.  But it wasn't until today that I finally joined Facebook.   My husband had been prodding me to join for some time.  So had my friends.  Apparently I have been missing all the little smileys and cups of coffee people have been sending one another for so long.  And no one has ever read 25 Things About Me by me.  

So, I figured, now that I have joined Facebook, I might as well go headstrong into the wind (as is like me) and start the blog I have always wanted to write.  I majored in sociology in college. And I had a fondness for oral histories.  Blogging seems like a natural outgrowth of that.  (Can you imagine a good sociological study about blogging?)   I have fantasized about blog names. Schlag.com is unfortunately already taken by a German who is not using it to its fullest potential.  MamaLaw?  (I think Lawyer Mama is taken.)  Italian Mama?   I have also fantasized about blog subjects I might write about.  Parenting two children with diabetes.  Being the daughter of a shoemaker.  An Italian American in WASP America.  Legal subjects like securities litigation.  Or the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Parenting an adopted child from the foster care system.  Creating a multi-racial family through adoption.  Extending my family through open adoption.  There are so many blogs I enjoy reading and would like to emulate in some way.  (Most recently the ones relating to adoption.)

But, my blog?  I think I will just stick with what I know best: my family, my life.  Four Gardners and Me.  Here goes. . . .

Michelle